The Squier Causeway at Lake Umayo

Notes on Ancient Travel in the Northern Lake Titicaca Basin

By: Catherine J. Julien

Originally Published in 1988

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When Ephraim George Squier embarked on his exploration of highland Peru and Bolivia in 1864-65, he rode on muleback across routes that had served travelers for cen­turies. His published accounts of these journeys are still of value to archaeologists in this century, pro­viding information about monu­ments that have since deteriorated.

Squier made a special trip to Lake Umayo, a small lake north­west of Lake Titicaca and located at the same high altitude, just over 3800 m (1877: 377). His interest was fanned by the finely fitted stone burial towers, known locally as chulipas, which are found on the peninsula of Sillustani (Figs. 1, 2). He drew a map of the peninsula, noting a causeway in the shallow lagoon of Lake Umayo (Figs. 3, 4).

When I began to conduct field­work in the Umayo area in 1974, I did not observe the causeway; however, when the dry seasons of 1975 and 1976 brought the lake to a shallow ebb, I began to recognize its remains. Submerged during periods when the lake level was high, the causeway had escaped scholarly attention since Squier’s day and had been long forgotten.

Squier’s Visit to Umayo

Squier traveled through the south­ern Andes with a small party, including a guide, a muleteer and several additional attendants (see box). An illustrator named Harvey and a photographer were the only project staff. The party left the port of Arica in the spring of 1864.

Traveling with pack animals, the group established camps in de­serted archaeological sites, rock shelters, or native villages along the way. Squier describes how a can­vas stretched over their gear was often used as a tent, and mentions one night spent hovering under a poncho near the Lake Titicaca shore. We can sympathize with him, for he picked the coldest time of year to travel: the highland Andean winter and dry season lasts from May to October.

The dates of Squier’s trip can be reconstructed from the festivals he mentions. Squier left the Desagua­dero River at the southern end of Lake Titicaca, en route north, on St. John’s eve, June 24. He reached Puna at the north end of the lake and made a balsa (reed boat) trip with another scholarly traveler, the naturalist Antonio Raimondi. They voyaged to the islands of Titicaca and Coati in Lake Titicaca and then were blown off course on the return trip, reaching Escoma on the northeastern shore of the lake be­fore the winds allowed a return to Puno. In the meantime, Squier was given up for dead by some Ameri­can friends in Puno. They should have been more patient; he arrived in Puno in time for the 4th of July.

Between July 4 and July 28, when he celebrated Peruvian Indepen­dence Day in Cuzco, Squier made a number of short trips out of Puno. He visited the Lake Umayo area at this time, and may have spent as much as a week there. In his travels, Squier relied mainly on a map of the southern Andean highlands by John Barclay Pentland, first drafted in 1827-28, and then redrafted in 1837 (Fig. 7). Squier made a number of cor­rections to this map, largely hydro-graphical in nature. Nevertheless, Squier’s map of Lake Umayo still only roughly approximates the land-forms in the area. He appears not to have traveled the entire circum­ference of the lake, but rather to have drafted his map from a view­point along the shore in the vicinity of the Sillustani peninsula. His rendering of the peninsula’s con­tours, of the headlands west of it, and of the eastern short of Umayo island and the take itself accord better with a modern map than his rendering of the lakeshore on the opposite side of the lake from Sillustani. Also, he appears to have been unaware of the Maluchane inlet just beyond the headlands west of Sillustani and out of view from a vantage point of the shore near or at Sillustani. That inlet would have been inundated at the time Squier collected his informa­tion, given the level of the lake indicated by his drawing.

Squier may have visited Umayo island (Fig. 9). He correctly shows a a wall across the island’s terreplein, though he misrepresents its length as well as the contours of the western shoreline of the islands (compare Figs. 3 and 4). If he did actually visit the island, he may not have explored very much of it, since from the western part of the island he would have gotten a better view of the Maluchane inlet than his map indicates.

The main contribution of Squier’s map lies in its depiction of a cause­way in the Umayc lagoon, con­necting its shore with the neck of the Sillustani peninsula. Of interest to us here is his description of the lagoon:

The hay that sweeps behind the peninsula of Sillustani is shallow, grown up with reeds, and with the lake-weed which I have described as affording food for cattle in the dry season, and which is called Ilachu. We observe a line of wall resembling a causeway, running from shore to shore, within which, just traceable above the water, are lines of stone-work, such as might really be left by the sinking or sub­mergence of buildings, and which give some sort of sanction to the tradition, that here the Apus or Curacas [lords] of Hatuncolla had a palace and a town, which sunk, and were covered by the waters of the lake during a great earthquake. I went to the supposed walls in a balsa, and satisfied myself that they are really the remains of buildings; but whether originally these were erected on low grounds, with the supposed causeway as a dike to prevent the encroachments of the water when the lake rose during heavy rains, or whether there was a real subsidence of the grounds during some terrestrial convulsion, I am unprepared to say. I incline, however, to the former hypothesis. (1877:384-385)

Squier’s map shows the traces of stone foundations in the shallow bay nearest the Umayo hacienda. During the winter of 1980, when the lake was near its shallowest ebb in more than a decade, no remains of buildings could be seen in the caked mud. There is, however, a causeway like the one shown on Squier’s map. It departs from a headland in the Umayo lagoon, borders another headland about the middle of its course, and reaches the Sillustani peninsula near the hacienda (Fig. 8).

My relocation of the causeway, now in very poor condition, can be attributed to a peculiar combina­tion of circumstances. At the time, I was engaged in the excavation of habitation remains at Hatuncolla, 4 km from Sillustani (see below). Temporarily without a vehicle, for three weeks I had to walk from our camp at Sillustani to Hatuncolla. Accompanied by a Peruvian col­league, Mario Nunez, we spent the time collecting refuse from the surface of the site at Hatuncolla, preparatory to planning an excava­tion program, and we had to carry each day’s collections back to camp at Sillusfani. The task was exhaust­ing, especially at more than 3800 m of altitude, and we carried little along the way. The low water level—and a natural desire to look for any kind of shortcut—brought my attention to an older road nearer the lagoon shore.

This road skirted the lagoon and, just past a headland, headed di­rectly into the water toward the buildings of the Umayo hacienda (Fig. 10) as shown on Squier’s map. The road, and the portion of it now submerged, was bordered by white stones (Fig. 11). These stones later caught my attention in various efforts made over the years to photograph the causeway at dif­ferent times when the lighting or the fluctuating level of the lagoon might provide new information (Fig. 12). What I had observed was the use of white stones to outline the border of the lagoon. A geometrical shape had been imposed on the shore, and the causeway itself was part of this artificial contouring.

Who built the Umayo causeway and for what purpose? An attempt to answer this question can only be made after an examination of its relation to other archaeological remains in the area and comparison with other causeways in the region.

Archaeological Sites Near the Umayo Causeway

Other archaeological remains in the vicinity of the causeway were observed by Squier. He mentions a structure built on the neck of the peninsula that was similar to the Palace of the Inca on Titicaca Island that he had previously des­cribed. Since Squier often cited local tradition, he may not have actually seen the remains of such a structure.

Buildings dating to the 17th cen­tury are included within the Umayo hacienda, but none of the hacienda structures can be identified as pre-hispanic. A few stones used in enclosure walls are finely fitted stones in good Cuzco-style ma­sonry (see Niles, this issue); these, however, appear to have been re-used, taken from straight walls made with evenly coursed square or rectangular stones. Intact walls constructed with fitted stones have been found at several sites in the immediate vicinity of the hacienda. Some of the chullpas at Sillustani are built with dressed stones of this type, but all of these structures are circular and could not have provided the masonry now within the hacienda. The remains of walls Squier saw in the shallows near the Umayo hacienda were exposed at some point, and the enclosure walls may have been built with stones from this source. However, such stones are also seen, re-used as well, in relatively recent construc­tions at the site of Hatuncolla. Therefore, the stones at Umayo may have been removed from an original location in Hatuncolla.

The settlement at Hatuncolla and the chulipas at Sillustani have been closely related from the time of Inca domination to the present. My study of Hatuncolla, therefore, helps to establish the archaeological context of the causeway leading to the Sillustani peninsula. Hatuncolla was initially thought to have been the pre-Inca seat of the Qolla kings, as well as their place of residence during the time of Inca control. After systematically testing the site for any pre-Inca remains, however, I concluded that the site was author­ized, if not planned, by the Incas (Julien 1983).

If the Qolla kings did have a seat of government before the time of Inca control, the best candidate for this seat is the peninsula of Sillus­tani, on terraces facing the lagoon. Habitation refuse in this area is associated with a number of stone circles (including a circle described by Squier) that may be interpreted as house foundations based on comparisons with other sites in the area and as far away as highland Bolivia (Ryden 1947; Squier 1877).

Remains of occupation contempor­ary with Inca Hatuncolla are not found on the Sillustani terraces, but are scattered across the neck of the peninsula and extend eastward along the southern flank of the ridge behind the peninsula. Pot sherds found in the refuse show an even higher degree of Inca influ­ence than is evident in the already heavily Inca-influenced ceramic material found at Hatuncolla, sug­gesting even stronger ties to the empire (see Carlevato, this issue, for a similar case). An Inca-authorized settlement on the neck of the peninsula may have mo­tivated the construction of a cause­way.

Other Causeways in the Lake Titicaca Basin

Was the Umayo causeway con­structed during the time of Inca control, as Squier’s local informants told him, or was it constructed in even earlier times? The Incas do appear to have been involved in causeway construction in the north­ern Lake Titicaca basin, as evi­denced by the association of many causeways in the area with Inca roads. For example, a causeway still in use today crosses the peninsula of Carpa near Vilquechico. The modern road almost certainly fol­lows the same course as the Urna-suyo branch of the Collasuyo road, the Inca highway that transversed the southern quarter of the empire. Squier visited the Carpa peninsula, referring to it as Acarpa, and des­cribed its monumental remains (1877:393). Revisited by other ar­chaeologists, the buildings at the site have a number of clearly Cuzco features (Neira 1967; Tschopik 1946).

A second causeway, first des­cribed by John Hyslop, was part of the Urcosuyo branch of the Colla­suyo road. Connecting the Inca and modern sites of Chucuito and Camata, the road is still in use, becoming a causeway only when the level of Lake Titicaca is fairly high (Figs. 13-14). Hyslop has attri­buted the causeway to the Incas, since his survey of archaeological sites revealed that the causeway/ road passes through three sites first occupied during the time of Inca control (1986:122).

Another portion of the Urcosuyo branch of the main Inca highway which would have been a causeway in times of high water is the modern highway across the pampa to the south of the town of Paucarcolla (Figs. 15-16). Paucarcolla, like Hatun­colla, was founded under Inca rule. Stratified ceramic fragments from the road cut which crosses the town’s grid can be dated to the time of Inca domination. They occur in construction of a causeway between Zepita and Yunguyo on what may have been the Urcosuyo branch of the Inca road (1868:699). It was made of sod, but its culverts were constructed of corbeled sod and not stone. Corbeling, or spanning an open space with projecting blocks counterweighted to prevent col­lapse, is a technique that is known archaeologically in the Lake Titi­caca region and appears to have local and not Inca origins. It is still in use today in the construction of dwellings called putukus (Chavez In press).

Use of a local technology sug­gests either a local origin or at least local involvement in the engineering of an Inca project in the region. A local origin would not be surprising. Massive earthworks, related to agri­cultural practices, have long been a feature of the Lake Titicaca land­scape (Lennon 1982; Kolata 1987). Raised field systems in the northern Lake Titicaca basin were employed in the same marshy lowlands crossed by the causeways, though in several cases where the causeway/ roads cross raised fields, they do so with complete disregard for the field patterns, suggesting that they postdate the field systems. Lake level fluctuations and inundation during the rainy season prompted the development of these labor-intensive water management pro­grams long before the time of Inca control (see Erickson, this issue). Causeway construction on a similar scale may have been authorized by a Lake Titicaca region polity at some time prior to the period of Inca domination.

Several of the causeways des­cribed were not associated with the major Inca highway system, but connect islands and peninsulas with a nearby shore. A causeway Would have facilitated travel to these places, certainly, but we know that a number of islands in the Lake Titicaca area housed important local shrines in antiquity as well as in modern times (Ramos Gavilân 1976; Niles 1987), and special access to the sites may have been due to their status as shrines. Huaca Island may have been one such place. The name huaca means shrine in the Inca language, and the presence of Pucara-style stone sculpture near the causeway, regardless of when it was placed there, indicates the special status of the island. The Sillustani peninsula served as the burial place of the Qolla kings and is still sacred to the people of the Hatuncolla district.

The Incas were aware of these shrines, clouding the picture of who might have constructed a causeway for the purpose of gaining special access. The Incas usurped local cult practices at Titicaca and Coati Islands, near Copacabana. There, they placed administrators from royal Cuzco lineages and adorned the islands with a number of Inca constructions (Ramos Gavilán 1976: 20, 23). If they were involved in construction projects at local shrines, then they may have author­ized the building of causeways.

An easy answer to the question of who built the causeways and for what purpose is not forthcoming.

The perspective of a 19th-century traveler like Squier has directed our attention to the difficulties of tra­veling in the Lake Titicaca region, where changes in rainfall and lake level affect human activities. Archae­ological survey and excavation in several areas of the northern Lake Titicaca basin have framed our questions more effectively than the notes made by Squier more than a century ago, but real answers re­main to be found.


Cite This Article

Julien, Catherine J.. "The Squier Causeway at Lake Umayo." Expedition Magazine 30, no. 3 (November, 1988): -. Accessed May 18, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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